There are few jobs, Susie Lopez will tell you, more rewarding than teaching kids how to stand up to potential predators.

Lopez, who trains catechists for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Empowering God’s Children and Young People program, told the story of one girl in her community who was inappropriately touched by a schoolmate. When she had the courage to disclose that to an adult, she stopped the abuse not only for herself, but for others.

“She knew what to do,” said Lopez. “She told her catechist and the catechist reported it. From that, five other little victims came forward. They never said anything about it and it had been going on for half of the year.”

Unlike the first girl, Lopez explained, those victims hadn’t gone through something like Empowering God’s Children, which teaches youth about thwarting and reporting sexual abuse.

Lopez, along with Dea Boehme, Anita Robinson, and Marge Schugt, are considered some of the LA Archdiocese’s most seasoned experts in the VIRTUS safety programs that teach adults and children about sexual abuse prevention. 

Under the leadership of the archdiocese’s Office of Safeguard the Children, they’ve spent the last two decades passing on lessons learned to a new generation of facilitators charged with training every person in the archdiocese who works with or around youth.

The latest program is Empowering God’s Children, which launched in 2018. It’s taught annually to about 100,000 students enrolled K-12 in local Catholic schools, parish catechism classes, and various youth activities.

Their ministry, said the facilitators, is rooted in love for children — and a desire for them to love themselves.

“The love of oneself, the importance of that, it’s a very positive lesson we teach,” said Schugt, a retired social worker who serves as the Safeguard the Children coordinator at St. Margaret Mary Alacoque Church in Lomita. “Children can do a lot more when they know their self-worth.”

For many of the facilitators, their involvement in youth protection was prompted by the clergy sex abuse crisis in 2002. The women say it was a difficult time, but being mothers and grandmothers, they couldn’t stand idle.

Despite not knowing what to expect, Boehme joined Vienna’s first class of trainers.

“When we got started a lot of people were confused and angry,” Boehme said. “It was a test of my faith too. I stuck with it because I saw it was really working. People became empowered, learned what they had to do, and were able to move beyond that terrible moment. Now 20 years later people come to training engaged.”

Robinson admitted she was reluctant to take her first training class. After 33 years of working in Los Angeles public schools as a teacher and administrator, she thought she knew how to protect children. After one day of training, she realized she was wrong.

 “I had no idea how sophisticated the grooming process was,” Robinson said. “Predators are patient. They’re so intent on what they’re doing, they will spend all the time they need.

“I realized, wow, this program is so much more than I thought it was.”

One of the most painful lessons they’ve all learned is how the effects of childhood sexual abuse are deep and lasting.

“One of the most challenging things for me is to watch the [training] videos,” Schugt said. “I still look into the [victim’s] eyes and see the pain. It’s so hard. But the day it becomes just another video for me to get through is the day I need to stop.”

Vienna understands the pain all too well. As a survivor of sexual abuse, she is driven to give others a “wonderful childhood.” Vienna said that’s accomplished by giving kids and adults the right tools.

“I wish someone had this knowledge when I was a child,” Vienna said. “We now have a common language, we use the same words when teaching adults and youth. When kids say someone’s touch made them ‘uncomfortable,’ we know what they mean.”

Despite the heartache involved, Vienna calls this a “joyful ministry” infused with prayer and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Boehme, a retired forensic toxicologist, agrees.

“We trust God will give us the words, the attitude, the skills to help people understand the program,” said Boehme. “We always pray for an effective training session and for those that are there that day to come to a new place of understanding and empowerment.”

Lopez sees herself as part of an ongoing shift in society, one that is more honest and open about childhood sexual abuse. She leads with that objective as a facilitator and the religious education coordinator at St. Philip the Apostle Church in Pasadena.

“Changing the culture of silence to a culture of dialogue — I’m for that,” Lopez said. “I have no problem talking about it and I’m glad more people are talking about it.”

That’s why Empowering God's Children’s curriculum teaches appropriate and inappropriate behavior, how to advocate for yourself during threatening situations and the importance of reporting anything that makes anyone uncomfortable. Safeguard the Children Associate Director Brenda Cabrera, Vienna, and Robinson — also a consultant for the office — developed the program with easy-to-follow lesson plans and strong ties to Scripture.

“In every lesson, there is a catechetical connection,” Robinson said. “We can’t operate in isolation of our faith. It’s important to let children know they’ve been created wonderfully, beautifully by God.”

Empowering God’s Children runs on a three-year cycle with each year having a different theme: “Safe and Unsafe Touching Rules,” “Boundaries and Bullying,” and “Internet and Technology Safety.” The last two are particularly important for tweens and teens, said Lopez, whose child also went through the program.

“Bullying doesn’t end at school; it goes home,” Lopez said. “As long as [youth are] engaging online, they’re allowing the bullying to continue in some way. We talk about it, we tell them they have the power to stop it. They can block and report.”

Younger children are instructed in a way that is informative but not too scary or explicit. Robinson said she keeps the lessons positive, referring to kids as superheroes in their own stories.

“It’s work I can do,” said Robinson. “It’s work I think I’m effective at. It’s work I’m so passionate about, I cannot stop.”